Learning Experiences (formal and informal) – Gender Equity in the Workplace, part 6

Hello everyone,

As a continuing commitment to look at the YALSA Teen Services Competencies for Library Staff through the EDI lens, and my presidential theme of Striving for Equity using the same Competencies, I considered the fourth of these Competencies. I thought about how career preparation is a considerable aspect of Learning Experiences (formal and informal), and realized that a notable, ongoing issue of equity, inequity and inequality revolves around gender issues in the workplace.

Because I feel that our perspective can become myopic if we stay wholly within the library sphere, I chose to interview women in the non-library workforce and I asked them about their experiences around gender inequity and inequality, and how these elements shaped them, both as teens and during their careers. I also asked them about how they feel gender inequity and inequality has affected the teens in their own lives today.

The last interview in the series is with Erin Anderson Wenz. She is a Professional Engineer and Principal/Vice President at an environmental engineering consulting firm in Minneapolis.  She has over 20 years of experience managing stormwater and lake water quality in urban environments.  Her project work also includes the design and construction of low-impact development features such as rainwater cisterns, rain gardens, and porous pavement. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband, two sons and a daughter.

If there was one element of gender equity that you would like to see promoted in the workplace, what would it be?

Paid family leave for moms and dads so that working parents can be equally supported in taking time off from work to be with their small children, and coaching for women to consider more leadership positions in the workplace.

Considering the research that gender stereotypes are set into motion around age 10, how would you say that you worked against these stereotypes for girls, and in what ways did they become a part of your own upbringing and adolescence?

Growing up, I guess I was a little lucky – I never felt like there were things I couldn’t do.  It wasn’t until college that I realized how gender-skewed my chosen profession would be (at least it has been for a while… things are really changing!).

Can you discuss any experiences that you have had that made you feel singled out as a woman or as one of the women in your workplace or chosen career? Are there particular instances of gender inequalities that you have had to deal with? How did you handle them?

Some years into my career, I realized that I was being a bit looked over for a promotion offered to senior staff with an established clientele.  I had gone a little “off the radar” with senior leadership after reducing hours to spend more time with small children, and even though I was taking on greater responsibilities and having success at work, I realized that my colleagues may have assumed I wasn’t interested in an increased role.  It took a little catch-up effort for me to get the word out that I was ready for the challenge, with the credentials to prove my eligibility.  Maybe that experience would have been the same if I had been a man that had taken time off to be with children, maybe not. The fact is that more women tend to take that kind of time away, and have to negotiate reentry, and balance the next steps of a career along with home life.

What guidance, if any, have you received from mentors or coaches about how being a woman in the workplace may affect your career? How do you feel that this advice has helped you? What resources would you recommend to people who work with teens that would help them to better understand the scourge of gender inequity and inequality and impart that information to young people? 

My company has started talking very openly about gender equity and other kinds of diversity in the past few years, and the discussions have been very, very helpful.  Talking through things like implicit biases, and in some cases, differences in communication and self-confidence between men and women has given me better perspective about my role in the workplace.  Also, I am realizing how much I have equated women’s equity in the workplace with mothers’ equity in the workplace.  Not all women are mothers… the discussion about gender equity needs to be more nuanced than just about moms and kids.  It’s important that women from all walks of life (and men too!) talk about the spectrum of gender equity issues, and perhaps most importantly, listen to each other.

Famously, Sheryl Sandberg encouraged women in the workplace to “Lean In”. Can you describe suggestions that you’ve read about or learned from others (outside of direct mentorship) that have been helpful? Detrimental? Any you needed to tweak for your particular situation to be successful?

I agree that women should “Lean In” and not assume that they don’t have enough experience or perspective to make a difference in their workplace.  Women, like men, have important things to say and are just as capable of leading. Sometimes, women undervalue what they are capable of, so I have, at times, taken courage from Ms. Sandberg’s message.  However, I feel that without the support of our greater communities (including men) to change their assumptions about the value of women in the workplace, and without changes to corporate culture to better support families, women are often placed in the position of “leaning in” while simultaneously playing more stereotypical roles at home, essentially, leaning in to everything all at once.  That’s not sustainable, and it will take more than just women to make that change.

What advice would you have for teens who are entering the workforce when it comes to gender roles and gender inequity?

For boys: There is a lot of messaging out there right now that is “anti-feminist” and “anti-women”- much of it on YouTube.  In these days of the #metoo movement, it can feel like the world is suddenly “anti-men” and some people will exploit that feeling with messaging that is untrue.  Take time to understand the complexity of social norms and the history of women in the workplace.  Treating women as equally valuable members of the workplace doesn’t mean your role is diminished. For girls:  Be whatever kind of woman you want to be, and don’t assume that you have to know everything to be successful and to lead.  Seek out mentors that can help you find your path and to leverage your skills.

Finally, what ideals about gender equity and equality have you worked to instill in your own kids and others around them, and how?

My husband and I try to raise our daughter and our sons in an environment where their opportunities are the same.  All three kids have played on hockey teams at one time or another, they all cook, and all have been involved in the arts.  Their father does all the cooking, their mother is an engineer, their aunt is a doctor whose husband stays home with their two small kids. These examples can only help shake up old assumptions about gender roles, and I’m thankful for that.  I also look for examples (there are a zillion on the internet) where gender stereotypes are at play to use as open discussion topics with the kids.

In our greater community, I try to visit schools whenever asked to share about the work that I do, to remind boys and girls that an engineer can look like me. I think if we can teach young kids not to make assumptions about themselves and what they can or cannot do because of their gender (or anything else), we’re on the right path.

Thanks for participating, Erin, and thanks to readers for everything you do to counter gender inequity and inequality in and outside of libraries! I hope you have enjoyed and learned from this series, as I most surely have. Please send comments to me if you wish!

Todd Krueger, YALSA President 2019-2020 | Twitter: @toddbcpl

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